The Breakaway: Chicago Blackhawks Owner Rocky Wirtz
By the time Bill Wirtz died last fall, his once-proud Chicago Blackhawks had turned into perennial losers playing before dwindling crowds. His son Rocky took over and quickly opened a new era for the team—by repudiating almost everything his old man held dear
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He knew it was coming, could feel it like the first cold prickle of dread-sweat. A night that was supposed to be about reverence and remembrance was about to become another instance of embarrassment—for him, his father, his family. He also knew that, despite his newfound status as the most powerful man in the building, there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it. Tonight was out of his hands. The only thing to do was get through it, endure it.
It was October 6, 2007, a Saturday night and the start of a new season for the Chicago Blackhawks. Eleven days earlier, his father, William Wirtz, had died. It was no secret that Bill Wirtz, one of the most influential professional sports team owners in Chicago history, was also one of the most reviled. From bars to blogs, radio talk shows to letters to the editor, the mere mention of "Dollar Bill"—as he was derisively called for his penny-pinching ways—prompted expressions of outrage and disgust. His team, the Blackhawks, once the most popular franchise in Chicago, had become a laughingstock, named "the worst franchise in sports" in 2004 by ESPN, with the second-lowest attendance in the entire National Hockey League. On the few occasions when he would make a public appearance—when he presented the former star and current head coach Denis Savard with his retired jersey, for example—he was booed mercilessly. His refusal to televise Hawks home games in the face of withering criticism had become maddening in its obstinacy. Still, at the insistence of his second-oldest son, Peter, Bill Wirtz was to be publicly honored on this night—with a pregame speech by the team's general manager, Dale Tallon, followed by a moment of silence. The sons and daughters, in-laws, and grandchildren of the late owner had gathered in the owner's box, high above the ice in the $175-million, 960,000-square-foot United Center, the arena that was Bill Wirtz's crowning achievement. A spotlight snapped on. The white-haired Tallon, dressed in a shiny gray suit, began his remarks.
Rocky Wirtz, the oldest son, the man who was now in charge, braced himself. He had tried to warn his family—Peter, in particular—about what would happen, what they had let themselves in for. But nothing could have prepared the family for what followed. Grumbles grew into jeers, jeers into hisses and catcalls. Then, at the first mention of Bill Wirtz's name, a rolling thunder of boos—loud, sustained, and angry—swept the stands like a moving curtain of dark rain.
Rocky took it. He had no choice.
But as he watched the stricken faces of his family—trying not to show the deep pain he was feeling at the display of disrespect and contempt—he was more convinced than ever of the rightness of what he was about to do. He was going to save the franchise his family had built and redeem the family name that had become so despised. And he was going to do it the only way he believed would work: by reversing the key business principles his father had held most sacred, by doing the very things his father, famously, vehemently and tenaciously, had declared should not be done.
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Photograph: Andreas Larsson